TERF’s Original Sin
To the uninitiated, TERF stands for trans exclusionary radical feminism, essentially the idea that it is impossible for a person assigned a specific gender at birth to transition and occupy the space of the opposite gender. They get particularly het up over assigned male at birth (AMAB) folks entering and engaging in women’s only spaces, seeing it as an invasion of the patriarchy and essentially raping women all over again. From TERF’s perspective the very notion of non-cis identities is daily trauma on the very notion of womanhood and vagina-at-birth owning members of the human species. They take it a step further in claiming that trans-male identities are an existential threat to butch lesbian identities, and that once a vagina-at-birth-female always one. In their neat conceptual world men are the predators, women are the prey, and to introduce any form of gender hinterland is an affront to the feminist struggle.
So, what is this original sin? Is it the explicit erasure of any form of non-cis gender identities? Is it the casual biological essentialism that reduces women to their reproductive parts? Or is it the fact that many TERFs have cozied up to right-wing organisations to exclude non-cis folk from the public sphere much the same way the religious right did with non-heterosexual identities? I would argue it is all of these, and one step more: Their original sin is the fear that gender essentialism is the wrong lens to explore gender with, and that the very arguments they make actually reinforce the patriarchal structures they wish to tear down. Theirs is an ideology of fear, both an internalised one and an externalisation which seeks to force everyone else to conform to their narrow perspective.
It would be too much to call them the Sonderkomando of the far-right, doing the right’s bidding to reinforce gender conformity, but they are certainly enablers of the highest order. Gender has three components: physical chromosomal biology, internal gender identity, and gender expression. Most TERF arguments get hung up on biology and expression, seeing trans women in particular as performative marionettes seeking to do the patriarchy’s bidding in terrorising women in women’s spaces. They see the penis as the instrument of oppression, and no amount of surgery, hormones, and facsimile of womanhood will ever erase the phallic symbolic raping of women’s identities. In their minds a penis owning person is always a predator, a sinful beast ready to consume.
Of course, this is nonsense. Predatory behaviour exists in all genders, and that while violence against women is a weaponised patriarchal tool that must be dealt with, to label all men, and AMAB women, as predators is to fatally weaken the cause. Women may be victims or patriarchal culture, but that does not intrinsically make them victims. Just as a person of colour may be the victim of racism and structural oppression does not intrinsically make them a victim by right. James Baldwin turned the conversation from the problem with black people to the problem with white people, and the TERF original sin is a stuck record constantly churning through the problem with trans folk. No. It is not the problem with trans folk that is the narrative, it is the very structural nature of cis patriarchal culture that is the root of oppression and violence against women.
Thus, the TERFs original sin is blaming trans folks, seeing it as the problem with the non-cis hinterland. Theirs is the turning of the screw of oppression onto gender minorities who seek to break the shackles of gender expectation. Trans performative narratives are a direct answer to the oppression we face, to the need for safety. The problem is not with the trans, it is with cis patriarchal narrative.
Those who have been abused often become abusers to cope with their trauma. TERFs actions traumatise through seeking to entrench a narrow band of rights for women, and by harnessing those who oppress minorities they are indeed collaborators. They willingly sup at the high table, and in doing so loose the slings and arrows that slay both mentally and physically those most in need of society’s support.
Feminism is not about female liberation to suppress men. Feminism seeks to left all into equity, seeing all our intersections as valid. Feminism bridges the divide, tears down oppression, and ultimately remakes the high table for every identity. It is not binary either/or, nor does it close off the gates to the broad gender hinterland beyond. It sees the predator for what it is, corals and cauterises it, and in turn teaching that an open palm is far better than a closed fist. TERFs original sin seeks to burn this to the ground out of fear, for what better way to entrench their own rights than by pointing the finger at all those trans folk on the margins. The problem is not about the trans, it is the structural oppression bounding gender raised up to protect a narrow clique of cis identities.